America needs criminal justice reform
For being a country that prides ourselves on democracy and freedom, it’s curious that America has the highest incarcerated population in the world.
The United States of America is home to less than five percent of the world’s population, but holds almost twenty-five percent of its incarcerated population. According to the TN Department of Corrections, in Tennessee alone, 20,000 people find their home in state prisons, with almost another 80,000 on probation or parole.
America has not always had to fess-up such embarrassing statistics. In the 1970’s, crime was on the rise and elected officials began to realize the political capital available to those who claimed to be “tough on crime,” by promising safer streets for families and harder lives for criminals.
Legislators created laws that were tough on crime but not smart on crime. For example, mandatory minimum sentences and the Three Strikes Law gave federal and state judges less discretion when sentencing convicted criminals. While they forced harsher and longer sentences for all offenders. Many of these inflexible laws are still on the books today.
While I’m no fan of letting murders run free, many of the severe punishments we are still giving are for crimes that are non-violent in nature. According to Tennessee’s Department of Corrections, last year in Tennessee only 50 percent of convicted inmates were serving time for violent crime. The other 50 percent deserve justice as well, but incarceration may not always be the best option.
Most prisoners will eventually return to their communities, and their time in prison isn’t doing anything to make those communities safer. By lowering prison populations and redirecting non-violent and low risk offenders to rehabilitative programs, we can make our communities a safer place to be.
The mandatory minimum sentencing laws that came to be in the 1970’s had every good intention of removing bias from the criminal justice system. On its face, requiring judges to give the same sentence to anyone who commits the same crime seems perfectly fair and just. Unfortunately, these policies ended up exploding prison populations while not accomplishing their goals of safety or fairness.
According to the 2010 census, African Americans make up 16.7 percent of Tennessee’s population, but in 2015, they were 43 percent of Tennessee’s inmate population. While some of this discrepancy may come from biases held by sentencing judges, recent events have shown that biases exist on many levels of the criminal justice system.
Cops have biases about minorities, and minorities have biases about cops, propagated by laws that militarize police and make them the enemy of the public. Two aspects necessary to police effectively are trust and accountability. Citizens need to be able to trust that our law enforcement is acting in the most fair way to uphold the law, and one way to do that is to decrease the “us vs. them” mentality. By eliminating overly armed officers and increasing practices such as foot patrol, police stand a better chance of building a relationship of trust with a community by being an approachable and familiar face to citizens.
As a country and a state, we should strive to create a criminal justice system that embodies the American values of freedom and equality while keeping our communities safe. The current policies and practices we have in the United States are quick to limit all freedoms for many non-violent offenders, limiting their potential for rehabilitation. In doing so, career criminals are encouraged, spreading the “us vs. them” mentality that is so dangerous to communities. Many states have made strides to reform their justice systems in recent years, often boasting wide bipartisan support in doing so. In Tennessee, some reforms have been successful, but more reforms are needed.